UW Today

February 21, 2017

Three UW scientists awarded Sloan Fellowships for early-career research

Three faculty members at the University of Washington have been awarded early-career fellowships from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. The new Sloan Fellows, announced Feb. 21, include Ali Farhadi, assistant professor of computer science and engineering; Emily Levesque, assistant professor of astronomy; and John Tuthill, assistant professor of physiology and biophysics.

Open to scholars in eight scientific and technical fields — chemistry, computer science, economics, mathematics, molecular biology, neuroscience, ocean sciences and physics — the fellowships honor those early-career scholars whose achievements mark them as the next generation of scientific leaders.

The 126 Sloan Fellows for 2017 were awarded in close coordination with the scientific community. Candidates are nominated by their fellow scientists, and winning fellows are selected by independent panels of senior scholars based on each candidate’s research accomplishments, creativity and potential to become a leader in his or her field. Each fellow will receive $60,000 to apply toward research endeavors.

This year’s fellows come from 60 institutions across the United States and Canada, spanning fields from evolutionary biology to data science. The new Sloan Fellows at the UW reflect this diversity, probing complex questions in machine learning, stellar astrophysics and neuroscience.

Ali Farhadi

Ali Farhadi

In the Department of Computer Science & Engineering, Farhadi focuses on computer vision, machine learning, the intersection of natural language and vision, analysis of the role of semantics in visual understanding, and visual reasoning. His work seeks to enable computers to perform visual tasks that human brains perform seamlessly — from intuiting why an “abnormal” image looks strange to predicting how objects will move if acted upon and understanding actions and behaviors in a scene.

As the senior research manager for the computer vision group at the Seattle-based Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, Farhadi also leads Project Plato. The project focuses on the intersection of artificial intelligence and computer vision and involves extracting knowledge from images, diagrams and videos; designing visual reasoning and planning algorithms; and parsing visual data.

Emily Levesque

Emily Levesque

In the Department of Astronomy, Levesque studies the behavior, composition and life cycles of “massive” stars. Some of her targets are stellar behemoths in our own neighborhood, like Betelgeuse, while others straddle the edge of the visible universe.

Massive stars — which are at least eight times more massive than our own sun — harbor a bevy of information about our universe. Thanks to the light they put out and the gases they ionize, massive stars account for the vast majority of light astronomers observe in other young, star-forming galaxies. Levesque’s data can help astronomers understand how these stars form, evolve and interact with the galaxies where they are born. She also studies how massive stars die, usually as explosive supernovae. Since some supernovae also belch out bursts of gamma rays, which are powerful enough to be observed during the deaths of some of the first stars, her data from these events can help scientists envision the infancy of the universe.

Levesque makes her observations on telescopes in Chile, Hawaii and the American Southwest, including the Apache Point Observatory 3.5-meter telescope in New Mexico in which UW is a founding partner. She also helps improve the methods astronomers use to analyze data gathered on these shared platforms. Astronomy has no shortage of cosmological questions, and Levesque wants to ensure that our telescopic divining rods give us clear answers.

John Tuthill

John Tuthill

Tuthill, a UW Medicine scientist, explores how the nervous system detects and decodes mechanical signals to guide movement and behavior.  From the rat whose whiskers let it slip through building eaves, to an insect landing on a leaf, animals use mechanosensory clues to navigate.

The Tuthill Lab studies the tiny nervous system of the fruit fly, Drosophila. The lab records neural activity from the fruit fly brain with electrophysiology and 2-photon imaging, while manipulating neural circuit function with advanced genetic tools. By combining these techniques with fine-scale analysis of fly behavior, the lab seeks to understand how activity in neural circuits senses and coordinates body movements.

The Tuthill Lab hopes to identify fundamental sensory and motor function principles that could illuminate underlying mechanisms of human movement disorders and pathological sensory conditions, such as chronic pain. Despite the apparent differences between flies and humans, the basic building blocks of the nervous system are the same.

While he was a doctoral student at Howard Hughes Medical Institute/Janelia, Tuthill studied how the fly brain detects visual motion. Later, as a Harvard Medical School postdoctoral fellow, he pioneered studies of touch processing in the fly. He joined the UW medical school faculty in 2016.

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For more information, contact James Urton at the UW Office of News & Information at 206-543-2580 or jurton@uw.edu.

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